March: Book Three: A Graphic Novel Review

March: Book Three by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate PowellThe March trilogy is a graphic novel series telling the story of John Lewis’s involvement with the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. When March: Book Three (2016) by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell begins in September 1963 with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Although this novel focuses on Lewis’s experiences with him as the narrator and, of course, biographical information from his own life, this story also takes a wider lens to look at the movement as a whole. Lewis is the head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) whose younger members are feeling disillusioned with the more mainstream activists who often take credit for SNCCs moves while sidelining their role. SNCC is on the verge of fracturing from within, and violence is increasing in the south as Lewis and others make plans for Freedom Vote and the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

March: Book Three is a thoughtful and engrossing conclusion to a trilogy that is already being hailed as a modern classic. This final installment was the 2016 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature and the 2017 Printz Award winner.

Although it is the third part of a trilogy, most of this story makes sense on its own. Readers with a basic knowledge of the Civil Rights Movement and history of the time may have an easier go diving into this story than those without that background. Because this book is so visual, I will admit that I had a hard time identifying key characters early on which, I think, is partly from coming to this book without reading the earlier installments.

Lewis and Aydin have worked together to create a narrative that focuses on Lewis’s life experiences and his own changing feelings about SNCC and the movement as a whole. At the same time, the scope and breadth of the movement–the far-reaching hopes and the devastating violence–are also emphasizes both with the narrative text and with Powell’s moving illustrations and dynamic panel layouts.

The black and white illustrations work extremely well to highlight the injustice the Civil Rights Movement was fighting. The lack of color in the illustrations also has the interesting effect of flattening a lot of the skin tones and underscoring how similar we all are. Powell does a good job filling each panel and page with movement and action. Some of the panels are a bit frenzied but it’s a deliberate choice at key moments.

Having March: Book Three framed as a story told in retrospect was also a very effective choice. Readers go into this story knowing that Lewis makes it through–he survives–and also seeing immediately how far things have progressed (and how much work remains). Reading this story through a different lens with more immediacy to the narrative would have been unbearable and often devastating in the wake of the loss and danger faced by Lewis and everyone else in the Movement. I read this graphic novel near the 2016 election and it was very poignant and bittersweet to see the power of the vote in action while also realizing how much was undone in 2016 and how much still must be done.

While this book functions as a larger history of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, it’s also important to remember that this series is also an autobiographical text in many ways. Because of that, this story does set aside and gloss over certain moments. This selective focus is a flaw of any biographical text and it makes sense in the context of this series as the focus is clearly and deliberately on the main events and players of the Movement. That said, it is interesting to note the way Stokely Carmichael’s comments about women’s only position in SNCC being prone was glossed over. I am sure it was seen as a joke by a lot of people then (and still) but the way it was sidestepped here just highlights how anyone, even with the best intentions does have an agenda and bias in terms of scope and how events are presented. It’s also worth noting that this story stops short of SNCC’s dissolution and Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination.

March: Book Three is a powerful conclusion to a trilogy everyone should read. This series deserves every bit of praise it has received. It is a rare series that occupies the space between academic reading for school and pleasure reading quite comfortably. Recommended.

Possible Pairings: Before We Were Free by Julia Alvarez, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice by Phillip Hoose, We Are the Ship by Kadir Nelson, X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin, Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley, Black Dove, White Raven by Elizabeth Wein

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